A couple of Fridays ago I became a bartender. Not in a bar, but in a church. The organ recital started at 10pm, the listing said ‘Wine and soft drinks available from 21.30’, the appointed person didn’t turn up, and so I took charge. I’m not someone who has ever taken charge of anything in my life, but I’d turned 31 just a couple of days before and decided it was now or never.
First thing was to suss out the territory. Three kinds of wine, the white (Sauvignon) chilled, with several backup bottles in the fridge, the red (Montepulciano and Chilean Merlot) not; elderflower pressé, orange juice. There were twelve wine glasses lined up already, which would suffice if business was slow, but perhaps there were more stashed away. Aha, a box under the counter. Everything was coming together nicely.
Then it was pointed out that there wasn’t a float. I had to improvise. I gently pleaded with my first patrons to pay exact change if possible. At one point I had to rush out, leaving my post unattended, to swap money for some change from the cash box at the door. One woman, buying £3.50 of drinks for her and her daughter, gave me £4 and told me to keep the change, a tacit but reassuring endorsement of my professionalism.
As the audience trickled in, I began to observe a strange alteration in my behaviour. The old social awkwardness disappeared. I felt a proprietorial pride. I leant on the bar, hallooing potential boozers. I became every bartender I have ever seen on television or in film. Sam Malone from Cheers, Brad the Bartender from Magnolia, Les from Men Behaving Badly. I haven’t watched Cocktail and, I may say without fear of contradiction, I never will, but I began to lament the absence of a cocktail shaker. Every new face automatically became a person who might confide their troubles to me as I poured them a large glass of Merlot and offered them a sympathetic ear.
I also assumed a jocular patter I have never possessed in real life. Give a man a bottle of wine and a person to pour it into and he suddenly finds his tongue.
White wine: Ooh, I’m out of breath after that.
Me: Did you come up Bath Street?
White wine: No, Catherine Hill.
Me: Well, they’re both steep!
This is the kind of witty banter I would never think of under normal circumstances. With other patrons I joked about the ludicrous overpricing of our drinks compared to those at the cello concert earlier in the week, and the oppressive atmosphere inside.
Elderflower: It’s very close in here.
Me: Yes, you can’t open the windows!
To see it written down, you don’t get a sense of the sheer jollity that arose from this quip. People just love small talk, that’s one of the many truths I discovered during my half hour in the limelight. They also like it if you play down your competence. I tried to engage one man by telling him that if he took a risk and bought a glass of wine he might get lucky as I’d never sold wine before and my measures were likely to be on the generous side. He didn’t buy anything, but it didn’t really matter as (I found out) people really like wine. ‘I work hard,’ their eyes seemed to say, ‘it’s Friday night. I want a glass of wine.’ One man bought a glass of red at 9.45, then came back for another one just before the recital started. Another asked me if there would be an interval. ‘No, it’ll just run straight for about an hour.’ Oh, well, in that case he’d better have two glasses. These men were clearly committed alcoholics, but you can’t let ethical considerations interfere with your job, especially when they might lead to the alienation of your core demographic. By the end I’d got through the best part of ten bottles, with enough left over for a glass of white for myself.
Not that my success was unmitigated. Near the start, one man asked for a Sauvignon and I peered at the labels on the bottles of red for a few moments before he clarified that Sauvignon meant white. Another man appeared to take umbrage at my having given his change to his wife. I wouldn’t have done it if he hadn’t suggested the money might have been hers anyway and that he was under orders from her as to what to buy. I didn’t call him a bastard, which is another illustration of my professionalism.
All things considered, I would be a bartender again, but probably not if it means I have to wash up 40 wine glasses after everyone else has gone home.